In a certain realm, in a certain land, there once lived an old man and woman with their only son Martin. All his life the old man had been a hunter, catching animals and birds and feeding his family on his catch. With time the old man took sick and died, leaving Martin and his mother alone in the world; they grieved and sorrowed, but there was nothing for it: tears won't bring back the dead. A week passed by and they had eaten all the food in the larder; seeing there was nothing more to eat, the old woman realised she would have to spend some money. The old man had left them two hundred rubles; though she was loath to open the money- box, they had to eat somehow and keep the wolf from the door. So she counted off a hundred rubles and told her son, "Here, Martin, take these hundred notes and borrow the neighbour's horse so that you can ride to town and buy some food. That will see us through the winter and we will look for work come the spring."
Martin borrowed his neighbour's horse and cart and rode off to town; as he was passing butchers' stalls in the market he saw a noisy crowd gathered there. What had happened? The butchers had caught a hound, tied him to a post and were beating him with sticks, and the dog was cowering, whining and yapping with pain. Martin ran over to the butchers and asked, "Why are you beating the poor dog so mercilessly?" "That devil deserves all he gets," the butchers said. "He stole a whole side of beef." "Stop, brothers," Martin cried. "Don't beat him, sell him to me instead." "Buy him if you please, but it will cost you a hundred rubles." said one butcher in jest. Martin pulled out a hundred rubles, paid the butcher, untied the hound and took him along. The dog wagged his tail and licked his new master's hand; he knew the young fellow had saved his life.
When Martin got back home, his mother asked him at once, "What have you bought, my boy?" "My first piece of good fortune," Martin replied. "What are you blathering about? What good fortune?" "Here it is, Blackie," he said pointing at the dog. "Is that all?" "If I'd had any money left I might have bought more: but the whole hundred went on the dog." The old woman scolded him: "We've nothing to eat; I've scraped the last bits of flour to make a roll for today, but tomorrow there'll be nothing at all."
Next day his mother took out the last hundred rubles, gave it to her son and told him: "Go to town and buy some food. son. but don't fritter the money away." Martin arrived at the town, began to walk up and down the streets and take a look around, and saw a boy dragging a cat along on a string towards the river. "Stop." called Martin. "Where are you taking that cat?" "I'm going to drown him: he stole a pie from our table." "Don't drown him," Martin said. "Sell him to me instead." "Buy him if you please, but it will cost you a hundred rubles." Martin did not think twice: he pulled out the money and gave it to the boy; then he put the cat in his bag and turned for home. "What have you bought, my boy?" asked his mother. "Stripey the cat." "Is that all?" "If I'd had any money left, I might have bought more." "Oh. what a fool you are!" she cried. "Leave this house at once and go begging food at someone else's door."
Off went Martin to the next village in search of work. taking with him Blackie the dog and Stripey the cat. On the way he met a priest. "Where are you going, my son?" he asked. "To look for work," the lad replied. "Come and work for me; only I take on workmen without fixing a wage: whoever serves me well for three years gets what he deserves." Martin agreed and toiled away three summers and winters for the priest; when the time came for payment, his master summoned him. "Well. Martin," he said, "come and get your reward." He led him into the bam. pointed at two full sacks and said, 'Take whichever you want." Martin saw that there was silver in one sack and sand in the other, and thought: "There's more to this than meets the eye. Come what may, but I will take the sand and see what happens." So he said: "I will take the sack of fine sand. master." "Please yourself, my son. Take the sand if you prefer it to silver."
Martin heaved the sack of sand upon his back and went to look for work again. He walked and walked, until he found himself in a dark. dense forest. In the middle of the forest was a glade, and in the glade a fire burned brightly, and in the fire sat a maiden more fair than tongue can tell or tale can spell. The fair maiden called to him, "Martin, the widow's son. if you wish to win good fortune, rescue me: put out the flame with the sand for which you laboured three years." "Aha," thought Martin, "it would be better to help someone than drag this load around. Sand is not worth much anyway, there's plenty of it about." He put down his sack, untied it and began to pour out the sand; the fire went out at once, the fair maiden struck the earth with her foot, turned into a snake, leapt upon his chest and wound herself about his neck. Martin took fright. "Do not be afraid," said the snake. "Go to the Thrice-Ten King- dom beyond the Thrice-Nine Land; my father is king there. When you come to his palace he will offer you gold and silver and precious stones. But do not take any- thing. Just ask for the ring from his little finger. It is no ordinary ring: when you put it on one hand and then on the other twelve strapping youths will appear to do whatever you order, all in a single night."
Martin went on his way; by and by he reached the Thrice-Ten Kingdom and saw a huge rock. The snake jumped down from his neck, struck the earth and became a fair maiden once more. "Follow me," she said, leading the way under the rock. For a long time they walked along the underground passage until suddenly a light appeared; it got brighter and brighter, and they came out to a wide plain under a clear blue sky; and on the plain was a magnificent castle where the fair maiden's father lived?the king of mis underground realm.
As the travellers entered the white-stone castle they were greeted warmly by the king. "Welcome, my dear daughter. Where have you been all these years?" "Father. noble Sire, I would have perished had it not been for this man: he saved me from a cruel death and brought me here to my native land." "Thank you, young man," said the king, "your good deed deserves reward; take all the gold, silver and precious stones that your heart desires." But Martin, the widow's son, answered, "Your Maj- esty, I want neither gold, nor silver, nor precious stones; all I ask is the ring from the little finger of your royal hand. I am a single fellow: I shall look at the ring, and think of my future bride to drive away my loneliness." At once the king took off the ring and gave it to Martin. "Here, take it and good luck to you. But tell no one of the ring or you will find yourself in dire trouble."
Martin, the widow's son, thanked the king, took the ring and a small sum of money for the road, and set off the way he had come. By and by he returned to his native land, sought out his old mother, and they began to live happily without a care in the world. One day Martin thought to take a wife and sent his mother off as matchmaker. "Go to the king himself," he said, "and ask for his lovely daughter." "Oh, my son," the old woman replied, "don't bite off more than you can chew. If I go to the king, he will get angry and have us both put to death." "Do not worry, Mother," said her son, "since I am sending you, go forth boldly. And bring back the king's reply whatever it is; don't come home without it." The old woman set off sadly for the king's abode: she walked into the courtyard and made straight for the royal staircase, without as much as by your leave. But the guards seized her. "Halt. old hag! Where do you think you're going! Even generals don't dare come here without permission..." "Leave me alone!" cried the old woman. "I've come to do the king a favour; I want his daughter to marry my son, and you are trying to stop me!" She caused such a commotion that you'd have -thought the palace was on fire. Hearing the shouts, the king looked out of the window and ordered the woman to be brought to him. She marched straight into the royal chamber, crossed herself before the icons and curtseyed to the king. "What have you to say, old woman?" asked the king. "Well, you see, I have come to Your Majesty; now don't get cross: I have a buyer, you have the wares. The buyer is my son Martin, a very clever fellow; the wares are your daughter, the beautiful princess. Will you let her marry my Martin? They'd make a good pair." "Have you taken leave of your senses, woman?" cried the king. "Not at all, Your Majesty. Pray, give me your reply."
Straightaway the king summoned his ministers and they took counsel as to what the reply should be. And it was decided thus: let Martin build the richest of palaces within a single day and link it to the king's palace by a crystal bridge with gold and silver apple-trees growing on either side. And let him build a church with five domes: so there was a place where the wedding could be held and the marriage celebrated. If the old woman's son could do all that, he would be really clever and would win the princess's hand. But if he failed, he and the old woman would lose their heads for their impudence. Home went the old woman with the reply, weeping bitter tears as she trudged along. "Well, my son," she cried. "I told you not to bite off more than you can chew; but you would have your way. Now our poor heads are for the chop, tomorrow we shall die." "Who knows, mother, we might stay alive. Pray to God and go to bed: morning is wiser than evening."
On the stroke of midnight, Martin got up from his bed, went out into the yard, put the ring on his other hand?and right away twelve strapping youths appeared, all exactly alike. "What is it that you require, Martin, the widow's son?" they asked. "It is this: build me by first light on this very spot a .splendid palace, with a crystal bridge leading from my palace to the king's and with gold and silver apple-trees growing on either side, and birds of every kind singing in their branches: build me, too, a church with five domes; so there is a place where my wedding can be held, and my marriage celebrated." "All will be ready by the morrow," replied the twelve strapping youths. With that they set to busily, brought workmen and carpenters from all sides and got down to work. They worked with a will and soon everything was done. In the morning Martin woke up to find himself not in his simple cottage, but in splendid chambers. He stepped onto the high porch and saw that all was ready:
the palace, the church, the crystal bridge, and the trees with gold and silver apples. The king also walked onto his balcony, looked through his spy-glass and marvelled to see that all had been done as he had ordered. He summoned the fair princess and told her to get ready for the wedding. "Well," he said, "I never thought I would hand my daughter over to a peasant's son, but there's nothing for it now."
While the princess was dressing herself in her finery, Martin, the widow's son. came into the yard, put the magic ring on his other hand, and saw twelve strapping youths appear as if from out of the ground. "What is it that you require?" they asked. "It is this," Martin said, "dress me in a nobleman's caftan and get ready a golden coach with six fine horses." "Straightway, master." In the twinkling of an eye Martin was brought the caftan; he put it on and it fitted him perfectly. Then he looked round and saw standing at the portals a carriage harnessed to six splendid horses dappled silver and gold. He got into the carriage and drove to the church; the bells were already ringing for mass, and people were flocking by the score! Behind the groom came the bride with her maids and matrons and the king with his minis- ters. After mass Martin, the widow's son, took the fair princess by the hand and, as right and proper, they were wed. The king gave his daughter a rich dowry, bestowed high office upon his new son-in-law and held a wedding feast to which all the world was invited.
The young couple lived together one month, then two and three: all the while Martin had new palaces and gardens built by the day, if not the hour. But it pained the princess to think that she had been wed not to a prince, a royal heir. but to a simple peasant. So she began wondering how to get rid of him. She pretended to be as sweet and loving as any husband could desire. She saw to her husband's every need, served him in every way she could, trying all the time to wheedle his secret out of him. But Martin was as firm as a rock and would not betray it.
One day, however, after drinking with the king, he came home and lay down to rest; the princess ran to his side, kissing and caressing him, breathing sweet words into his ear; and so oily was her tongue that Martin finally told her about his wonderful ring. "Good," thought the princess, "now I'll finish you off." As soon as he fell asleep, she snatched the ring from his little finger, went into the courtyard and put it on her other hand. At once the twelve strapping youths appeared. "What is it that you require, fair princess?" they asked. "Listen, lads," she said, "make the palace, the church and the crystal bridge vanish by dawn; and bring back the humble cottage as before. Leave my husband as poor as he always was, and carry me off to the Thrice-Ten Kingdom beyond the Thrice-Nine Land, to the Mice's Realm. I am ashamed to live here." "Straightway, Your Highness," they said. In a flash she was swept up by the wind and borne off to the Thrice-Ten Kingdom, the Mice's Realm.
Next morning the king awoke and went out onto his balcony to look through his spy-glass?but there was no palace with a crystal bridge and no five-domed church. just a humble cottage. "What does this mean?" he thought. "Where has it all gone?" And without delay he sent his adjutant to find out what had happened. The adjutant galloped off, inspected everything, then returned to report to the king, "Your Majesty, where the grand palace once stood there is now the humble cottage as before:
and inside the cottage lives your son-in-law with his mother; but there is no sign of the fair princess and no one knows where she is." The king called a grand council to pronounce judgement on his son-in-law: they condemned him for sorcery and the wrong he had done to the fair princess. Martin was to be immured in a high stone pillar with neither food nor drink. Let him starve to death. Stonemasons came and put up a tall stone pillar in which Martin was immured, with one small window for light. And there he sat. poor lad, shut in without food or drink one day. then a second and a third, weeping bitterly.
Martin's old friend. Blackie the dog. found out what had happened and came running to the cottage. Stripey the cat lay purring on the stove. "You lazy scoundrel, Stripey," said the dog. "all you can do is lie and stretch on the stove in the warm. while our master is shut up in a stone prison far away. Have you forgotten how he gave his last hundred rubles to save your miserable skin? If it hadn't been for him the worms would have eaten you away long ago. Get up quickly! We must go and help him." Stripey hopped down from the stove and. together with the dog. ran off to search for their master. Coming at last to his stone prison, the cat scrambled up to the window. "Hey, master! Are you still alive?" "Only just." answered Martin. "I'm starving; it must be my fate to die of hunger." "Don't despair; we will bring you food and drink." said Stripey. jumping out of the little window and down to the ground. "Our master's starving to death, Blackie; what can we do to help him?" "Oh, Stripey. you're too stupid to think of anything! I know: let's go to town. and as soon as we meet a pieman with a tray of pies. I'll trip him up and make him drop the tray. Then grab some pies and take them to our master."
So they went to the high street and met a man carrying a tray on his head. The dog darted under his feet, making the man stumble and drop his tray. The pies went flying, and the poor man ran off in a panic, thinking a mad dog was after him. Stripey snatched up a pie and ran off to Martin. He gave him the pie and dashed back for another, then a third. In the same fashion they frightened away a man selling cabbage soup, and thus got many a bowlful for their master. Then Blackie and Stripey decided to set off for the Thrice-Ten Kingdom, the Mice's Realm, to bring back the wonderful ring; the road was long and it would take them some time. Before setting off they brought Martin a good store of rusks, rolls, pies and provi- sions to last a whole year. "Eat and drink, master, but make sure your supplies last out until we return." They bade him farewell and set off on their long journey.
By and by they came to a deep blue sea. "I think I can swim to the other side. what about you'^" said the dog. "I'm no good at swimming." Stripey said. "I'll drown in no time." "Then climb on my back." So Stripey climbed on the dog's back. dug his claws into Blackie's thick fur, and they swam off across the sea. When they reached the other side they came to the Thrice-Ten Kingdom, the Mice's Realm. There was not a single human being in that land; but there were more mice than you could count?wherever you looked they were scampering about in their thousands. "Now it's your turn, Stripey," said the dog. "You break their necks. while I gather up the bodies and put them in a pile."
Stripey was used to this sort of hunting; off he went to deal with the mice in his way; one pounce and the mouse was finished. The dog could hardly keep up with him and by the end of a week the pile was huge. A terrible grief lay over the entire realm. When the Mouse King found that his subjects were missing, that many had suffered a cruel fate, he crawled out of his hole and begged the dog and the cat: "I bow before you, mighty warriors. Take pity on my poor people, do not kill us all;
tell me, instead, what I can do for you. Whatever you say will be done." The dog told him this: "You have a palace in your realm, and within that palace dwells a fair princess; she stole our master's magic ring. Fetch us that ring, or you will die and your kingdom will perish?we will lay it waste!" "Wait," said the Mouse King, "I will summon my subjects and ask them."
Immediately he gathered all the mice, large and small, and asked if one of them would creep into the palace to the fair princess and steal her ring. One little mouse answered, "I often go to that palace. By day the princess wears the ring on her little finger, and by night when she goes to bed she puts it into her mouth." "Go and try to get it," said the Mouse King. "If you succeed I will reward you handsomely." The little mouse waited until nightfall, made his way into the palace and crept on tiptoe into the princess's bed-chamber. She was sleeping soundly. Climbing onto the bed, he poked his tail into the princess's nose and tickled her nostrils. She sneezed, and the ring flew out of her mouth and dropped onto the carpet. The little mouse hopped down from the bed, seized the ring in his teeth and took it to the Mouse King. The Mouse King handed the ring to the mighty warriors, Blackie and Stripey, and they in turn paid him their compliments. Then they held counsel between themselves: who should look after the ring? "Give it to me, I'll never lose it, not for anything," said the cat. "All right," said Blackie. "But see you guard it with your life." The cat took the ring in his mouth and they set off on their return journey.
When they arrived at the deep blue sea, Stripey climbed onto the dog's back, dug his claws into Blackie's thick fur as tightly as he could, and into the water they went, swimming across to the other side. They swam for an hour or two, then out of nowhere a black raven swooped down and started pecking at Stripey's head. The poor cat did not know how to protect himself from the enemy. If he used his claws he would slip into the water and end up at the bottom of the sea; if he used his teeth, he might lose the ring. What was he to do?' He endured it as long as he could, until his head was bloody from the raven's pecking. Then he lost his temper, opened his mouth to seize the raven and ... dropped the ring into the deep blue sea. The black raven flew up and disappeared into a dark forest. As soon as they reached land, Blackie demanded to see the ring. Stnpey hung his head in shame. "Forgive me, Blackie." he said. "I'm sorry. I dropped it into the sea." The dog let fly at him. "You stupid oaf! You're lucky I didn't find out earlier, or I'd have dropped you into the sea, you dolt. What are we going to tell our master? Crawl into the sea at once and find that ring, or I'll tear you to pieces!" "What good will that do?" growled the cat. "We must put our heads together: just as we caught mice before, we'll catch crabs now. Perhaps they will find our ring for us." The dog agreed. So they began to walk along the seashore catching crabs and piling them up. The pile grew and grew. A huge crab crawled out of the sea to take a walk; in a flash Stripey had him in his claws. "Don't kill me, mighty warriors, I am the Crab King. I shall do whatever you order." "We dropped a ring into the sea," said Stripey, "go and look for it if you desire our pardon; or we will put your whole kingdom to waste."
The Crab King called his subjects at once and told them about the ring. Then up spoke a tiny crab: "I know where it is. When the ring fell into the deep blue sea, a sturgeon seized it and swallowed it before my very eyes." All the crabs ran through the sea in search of the sturgeon; when they found it they began pinching and tweaking the poor fish ceaselessly. The fish twisted and turned this way and that. and finally leapt onto the shore. The Crab King again emerged from the water and addressed the cat and the dog: "Here is the sturgeon, mighty warriors. Have no mercy on it, for it has swallowed your ring." The dog pounced on the sturgeon and started eating it up from the tail. But the cunning cat guessed where the ring would be. He gnawed a hole in the sturgeon's belly, tore out its insides and there was the ring. Seizing it in his teeth he scampered off as fast as his legs would carry him, thinking, "I'll run to the master, give him the ring and say I found it all by myself; and the master will love me more than Blackie."
Meanwhile the dog was finishing his meal of fish and wondering where the cat had gone. He soon guessed what the cat was up to, that he was trying to curry favour with their master. "It's no good, Stripey, you rascal! I'll catch you up and tear you to pieces." And off ran Blackie after the cat. He caught Stripey up and threatened him with a terrible fate. Spying a birch-tree in a field, Stripey scampered up it and sat there right at the top. "Very well," said the dog, "you can't sit in a tree forever; you'll want to come down sometime. And I shan't budge until you do." For three days Stripey sat up the tree, and for three days Blackie stood guard, not letting him out of sight for a moment. They both got very hungry and agreed to make it up. then set off together to their master. When they reached the stone prison, Stripey sprang up to the little window and asked, "Are you still alive. Master?" "Hello, dear Stripey! I thought you would never return. I haven't had a bite to eat for three days." Thereupon the cat gave him the magic ring. Martin bided his time till dead of night, put the ring on his other hand and the twelve strapping youths appeared.
"What is it that you require?" "Set up my former palace, lads," said Martin, "and the crystal bridge and the five-domed church; and bring back my unfaithful wife; have it ready by morning."
No sooner said than done. The king awoke next morning, went onto his bal- cony, and looked through his spy-glass: where the cottage had stood there was now a lofty palace; from the palace stretched a crystal bridge, and on either side of the bridge grew trees with gold and silver apples. The king ordered his coach to be made ready and rode off to see whether it had all really come back or whether he was dreaming. Martin met him at the gates, took him by his fair hands and led him into his splendid palace. "Well, this is how it was, Sire, and all because of the princess", and he told the king the whole story. The king ordered the princess to be executed: the unfaithful wife was tied to the tail of a wild stallion which was set loose upon the open plain. The stallion flew like the wind, dashing her snow-white body against the gullies and steep ravines. But Martin still lives and prospers to this day.
Collected and edited by Michael Terletski